So Mozilla wants to go mobile, eh?

As with baseball, on the web we have our home teams and our underdogs and our all-stars; we have our upsets, our defeats, and our glorious wins in the bottom of the ninth. And though I’m actually not much of a baseball fan anymore (though growing up in New England, I was exposed to plenty of Red Sox fever), I do relate my feelings for Mozilla to the way a lot of folks felt about the Red Sox before they finally won the World Series and broke the Curse of the Bambino: that is, I identify with Mozilla as my team, but dammit if they don’t frustrate me on occasion.

Tara wonders why I spend so much time on Mozilla when clearly I’m a perennial critic of the direction they’re headed in and the decisions that they make. But then Tara also didn’t grow up around vocal critics of the Red Sox who expressed their dedication and patronage to the team through their constant criticism and anger. It might not make sense, and it might not seem worth my time, but whatever the case, you really can’t be neutral about Mozilla and still consider yourself a fan. Even if you disagree with everything decision that they make, they’re still the home team of the Open Web and heck, even as you bitch and whine about this or about that, you really just want to see them do well, oftentimes in spite of themselves.

So, with that said, let me give you a superficial summary of what I think about Mozilla’s recent announcement about their mobile strategy:

If you want to stop reading now, you can, but the details and background of my reasoning might be somewhat interesting to you. I make no promises though.

Too little, too late.

It’s as though Alexander Graham Bell woke from the dead and realized — now — that people like telephones, but they like them more without the wires. Having realized this, he suddenly wants to start building “moh-byle telephones“.

Mozilla’s been flogging Firefox as an answer to Internet Explorer’s desktop hegemony (rather successfully) for forever, with no outright emphasis on the mobile web. ‘Til yesterday, when seemingly out of the blue, they announce that they plan to rock it.

Did I fall asleep? Where did that come from?

Opera has long since thought to be the owner of the Mobile Web, but cracks in its dominance have been made more obvious ever since the iPhone came on the scene and demonstrated what you can do with souped up hardware, a touchscreen and a browser with a zooming interface.

So between WebKit/Safari and Opera Mini, there are already two fairly capable mobile browsers. A third is choice certainly welcome, but unless Mozilla’s got some OEM deals that they haven’t told anyone about ( perchance?), I’m not sure how they plan on getting on to mobile handsets considering how closed mobile phone hardware is. (Unless of course Google does have a phone in the works… but then that would fly against my theory that Apple is the hardware maker and Google is the web OS provider in that relationship, wouldn’t it?)

Well, let’s leave that issue alone for now.

My take away here: what the heck took Mozilla so long to get serious about the mobile web? I shruggingly welcome their arrival, but damn, they’ve got some catch up work to do!

Are they a product or a platform company?

This point brings me back to May when I posted my original rant about Mozilla and my concern about their decision to focus on Firefox as product rather than Mozilla as platform. After a few months of thinking over my position, I realized the wisdom of their decision. It seemed that, if there were going to compete in the wide world (read: corporate) against Internet Explorer et al., they probably should focus their collective might on making the best possible product and then market the hell out of it. I don’t actually think this will work long term, but it sure makes for a comfortable and well-known approach to selling a product.

But just as I was getting used to that idea, Mozilla started to flip flop worse than John Kerry in a Presidential started to backpedal. It seems that they were kidding about focusing solely on Firefox and instead wanted to go after whatever fell out of the free tree and hit them on the head.

I mean, reviving Eudora? Threatening to put to pasture and then spinning off Thunderbird? And now — what? — porting Firefox to mobile handsets? Like that’s not an epic diversion.

My original contention was that Mozilla should focus on a non-proprietary open web platform to compete with the likes of Adobe’s and Microsoft’s . Instead I was rebuked and they said that they were going to focus on the browser. Now they’re back to activities that smell like platform theatrics (primarily through promoting XUL for mobile applications). What gives?

XUL is their widget platform? SRSLY?

iPhoney - Web AppsSpeaking of XUL, what’s this about using it as their platform technology for the mobile web? Aren’t you learning anything from Apple besides the fact that the world is fed up with the status quo in mobile experiences? Apple is expressly from browser chrome enhancements and pushing all their effort inside the browser frame. This isn’t an accident. Why is Mozilla still focusing on the cruft around the web page when the real value is in developing new web primitives inside the frame?

Ok, to put it another way, Apple Dashboard Widgets are made of HTML, JavaScript, CSS. Opera Widgets are made of a little XML, HTML, JavaScript, CSS. Yahoo Widgets are made of a little XML, JavaScript and CSS. Microsoft Gadgets use XML, JavaScript and CSS. iGoogle Widgets are made up of a little XML, HTML, JavaScript and CSS. While I understand that XUL is basically XML + JavaScript + CSS, it’s still foreign to most web developers and designers and it’s not compatible with any other web browser. So why bet on it for the future of your mobile platform? It’s a dead end. Why not embrace the future and make full compliance with CSS3, HTML5 and support for XForms and microformats the totality of your platform, as you suggested other folks do?

It’s stuff like this that freaks me out:

We will ship a version of “Mobile Firefox” which can, among other things, run Firefox extensions on mobile devices and allow others to build rich applications via XUL.

DO NOT WANTGah! Noooo! I hate to say it, but Apple gets it. It’s one thing for your PC to crash and slow to a crawl because you’ve installed 43 extensions that all jockey for processor priority; when it comes to my phone, sorry, but I simply DO NOT WANT the instability, crashiness and power drainage that comes with browser extensions on the phone. Keep it inside the chrome and I’ll be happy. Give me a legit GOD mode for my phone and I’ll be happy. But if you’re going to push for mobile application development and widget production, keep it web-friendly and avoid custom XML stuff that isn’t doesn’t belong on the web.

Is Google putting them up to this? Or is it Intel?

I’m sure I’ll get some people’s backs up with this comment, since Mozilla folks hate to think of themselves as having their priorities dictated by anyone but themselves (I suppose that’s why open source and libertarianism goes so well together) but let’s face it: if Mozilla doesn’t come up with a compelling mobile strategy soon, Google will happily adopt Apple’s WebKit browser for their gPhone OS.

Eric Schmidt’s on Apple’s board with a vengeance. If he has his way, the open source browser of choice for Google will no longer be the darling of the open source community (i.e. Firefox), but Steve Job’s upstart WebKit project.

WebKit already has a huge lead over Firefox in bringing a mobile browser to market on a highly functional mobile device. Why would Google place their bet with Mozilla, who’s only now entering into the fray and up until yesterday didn’t seem to realize the importance of a mobile strategy?

Then again, let’s set aside Apple and Google for a moment.

Instead, let’s contemplate that conspicuous mention of Intel in Schep’s post:

You can already get a Mozilla-based browser for the Nokia N800 and Firefox is a key part of Ubuntu Mobile and the new Intel Internet Project, and most recently ARM has put serious effort towards Firefox on mobile devices.

Moblin, Intel’s “Mobile & Internet Linux Project” relies on a version of Mozilla. With Schep’s additional emphasis on the improvements in mobile hardware, it seems perfectly reasonable that more capable mobile web experiences are going to demand faster processes and better hardware. Who benefits more from such circumstances than the folks who sell that kind of technology? And why else would Intel be pioneering an open source operating system based on Linux that uses as its center-piece an optimized version of Firefox? It certainly wouldn’t hurt to open some new markets for its more advanced mobile processors… that’s for sure. So I’ve got nothing solid here, just wanting to point out that a capable Mozilla browser means that Intel has a free alternative to licensing more of Microsoft’s technology for mobile devices.

Follow the money.

But let’s follow the money for a moment. Intel probably has long term designs on offering a full stack open source platform in order to sell more processors, but that’s pretty benign. It also results in, well, an open source mobile operating system that — who knows — could be installed over the iPhone’s OS (not sure why you’d want to, but it could happen) or on TrollTech’s GreenPhone. And that’s the beauty of open source business models: they cut both ways. Sure, it’ll sell more hardware for Intel, but it’ll also give folks more choice over what to run on that hardware. Everyone wins.

Okay okay, but let’s get back to Google, Apple and Mozilla and look at an overlooked economics opportunity here.

Let me put it simply: she who makes the browser, makes the money from search box revenue. And for Firefox, their search box revenue is so significant that Mitchell Baker can’t even talk about it1 (at least in 2005):

So revenue from our search relationships is encouraging. … Revenue from search relationships doesn’t provide the same sense of directly touching people’s lives. But it brings diversity in funding sources and it may well provide a significant ongoing source of funds.

This revenue isn’t perfect however. Like so many arrangements with commercial entities, the terms of our search relationships are governed by confidentiality obligations and we are not able to say very much about them. It turns out that marketing and business data remains sensitive even for companies that have grown comfortable with developing in the open. … It’s new to have that confidential information include a financial component and I am working to find ways to make more and more information available over time. For now we are living within classic confidentiality constraints regarding these agreements, while maintaining the absolute requirement of open development.

So what’s this have to do with Firefox’s mobile strategy? Well, you read what Schrep said: mobile devices outsell computers 20-1. Think about that. If Opera or WebKit become the de facto browsers of the Mobile Web, all that revenue that Mozilla currently relies on to fund its Corporate activities will dry up. Insomuch as Mozilla relies on browser-based search box revenue and the Mobile Web is the great untapped Athabasca Oil Sands of Alberta, Canada, Mozilla’s gotta get moving before Apple and Google collude and eat its lunch.

If Apple can do to mobile phones what it has done to portable media players with its iPod, the Google and Apple romance is going to start to sound annoyingly bittersweet to the folks in Mozilla land who, up until now, have relied entirely on desktop-driven search box revenue.

Go Red Sox!

Unfortunately, the last time I rambled on and on (for a full 50 minutes, if you can believe it — this time longer, but that’s because I write hella slow) a lot of folks interpreted my comments wholly negatively. Look, it’s hard for an old-soul curmudgeon like me to sugarcoat my frustrations with my home team. Especially when I have such higher hopes and ambitions for it.

I’m a Firefox stalwart supporter. I still relate to the naive optimism I had when I helped man the helm of Spread Firefox. But I’ve grown up a lot since then. I know better than to think that technology is only as deep as its source code. As Jamais Cascio said recently, To put it bluntly, software, like all technologies, is inherently political.

There’s more at work and more at stake here than just the future of browsers on mobile handsets.

While sometimes I wish I could go back to seeing the Red Sox as a sports team with honest heroes just trying to get to the World Series and win for the sake of the glory, I can’t stop my mind from decoding the business of every pitch and the transactions in every homerun.

So too is it infused in how I understand and observe the the ethics and the reality of open source that I can’t separate the business and commerce from the technology that drives it.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t still support the home team. That doesn’t mean that I’ll stop fighting the good fight or rallying for the underdog. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up. If I’ve learned anything from Red Sox fans, you never give up.

All the same, it does means that while I’ll go to bat for the home team, I won’t be lied to or bamboozled; I will continue to look every gift horse in the mouth. Open source is at an inflection point. In order to preserve the purity that makes it so powerful, for my own sake, I need to be able to see the commerce in the code, the business in hardware and the truth through the spin in order to make my decisions about who I support and what I stand for.

For now, I’m still rooting for the home team and hoping they can pull through. The challenges are many, the choices myriad; I’m not a purist but I still have hope.

Correction: Mike Beltzner points out in the comments that Mitchell has blogged somewhat candidly about Mozilla’s finances at the beginning of the year: In 2005 the Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation combined had revenue from all sources of $52.9M. $29.8M of this was associated with the Foundation (both before and after the creation of the Corporation). The bulk of this revenue was related to our search engine relationships, with the remainder coming from a combination of contributions, sales from the Mozilla store, interest income, and other sources. (emphasis added)

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

3 thoughts on “So Mozilla wants to go mobile, eh?”

  1. Hey Chris, some corrections:

    – the names are “Schrep” and “Jobs”, not “Schep” and “Job”;
    – Mitchell has talked quite openly about revenue

    Your comments on mobile and how we can be successful are totally welcome in the fora mentioned on Schrep’s blog post, and I bet the people who were brought on recently to help us get there would love to benefit from your wisdom and insight. I’m not being facetious, and am not at all interpreting your comments as being grounded in negativity, even if they’re presented in a largely non-constructive fashion. Unabashed criticism is more fun to write (and gets better pickup in the trades :), after all. Still, I look forward to seeing some strong suggestions of what we should be modifying in our strategy in order to make things better for the web (like, your point about XUL is well-founded, and I think that there’s a lot of similar talk on at the moment about moving away from XUL in Mozilla2, on which the mobile effort will be based).

    As for flip-flopping more than John Kerry in a Presidential, I’m not sure, precisely, what makes you think that the community, organization or environment we (and I mean all of us, even you!) exist in is unchanging. The Mozilla community, Foundation and Corporation is growing and evolving on a day by day basis. We do what we can with the resources available, and I’m pretty excited that we’ve secured dedicated resources for the purposes of working towards a feasible and effective mobile-based Mozilla project.

  2. Thanks for your comment Mike. I think it’s fair to ask for more constructiveness, so I’ll give that a go in the next couple posts I have lined up.

    I also made the corrections to the typos you pointed out and softened the Kerry hyperbole. Sometimes I’m too clever for my own good.

    I also had not seen Mitchell’s post — thank for that.

    I’ll also check in on Planet Moz; I admit I didn’t look there before posting. Thanks again for the pointers and reasonable response to my somewhat contained, yet-mildly-self-serving rant. 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: